A Cuban general and two fighter pilots have been indicted in the shooting down of two civilian planes in 1996 over the Straits of Florida, federal prosecutors announced today. The four men aboard the planes were killed.

Brig. Gen. Ruben Martinez Puente, who was then head of the Cuban air force, and pilots Lorenzo Alberto Perez Perez and Francisco Perez Perez were named in the indictment.

The charges against the men include murder, conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and destruction of aircraft. If convicted, they could face life in prison or the death penalty. However, the three men are in Cuba, and extradition is unlikely.

The planes of the group Brothers to the Rescue were shot down by two Cuban MiGs on Feb. 24, 1996, over international waters as three aircraft searched for migrant rafters trying to flee Cuba.

A third plane, carrying Brothers to the Rescue leader Jose Basulto and two observers, was not hit. On several flights before that day, members of the group had violated Cuba's airspace and dropped human rights leaflets over the island.

Basulto called the indictment "a step in the right direction." Cuban American activists have been lobbying for the indictment of Cuban President Fidel Castro in the attack.

Some Cuban Americans, including several Congress members and state lawmakers, have recently been critical of President Bush's administration for not taking a tougher stance against Castro. A group of 13 Florida state legislators told Bush in a letter that his steadfast support in the Cuban American community could be endangered in the 2004 presidential election. Losing that support could be critical in carrying Florida, which Bush did by 537 votes in 2000, giving him the White House.

Officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment. That office represents the Cuban government in the United States.

Spy ring chief Gerardo Hernandez is appealing his murder conspiracy conviction and life sentence in the deaths of the Miami-based fliers.

The spy ring conspired to lure the Brothers to the Rescue "aircraft into flying on the day of the shootdown by ensuring that the FBI would not stop the flights," U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said in a statement.

The families of three of the slain fliers, Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa and Mario de la Pena, sued under the federal law and won $188 million in damages in 1997. In April 2000, a judge awarded them $38 million from frozen U.S. bank accounts belonging to Cuban telephone companies. The family of the fourth man, Pablo Morales, could not sue because he was not a U.S. citizen.